2018 sees Cardiff’s Swn Festival reach new heights

Feat. Dream Wife, Boy Azooga, Gwenno and more.

Cardiff’s Swn, now in its eleventh year, sees venues, pubs, clubs, and antique markets host live music, and this year’s edition sees the festival reach new heights. Kicking things off at Tramshed on Wednesday night are Gwenno and co.; first act Halo Maud provide a calm opening with some dreamy sounds. Their songs are sung in both English and French, although slightly distracting is the bassist who appears to be the grooviest person at the entire festival.

Adwaith are up next, and the trio provide some very chilled out guitars with songs sung in Welsh (‘Swn’ is the Welsh word for ‘sound’, after all) and English although they leave more to be desired. ‘Dunno’ sees the appropriately-named frontwoman Hollie Singer indulge in some rapping which is more reminiscent of a bad school safety video than a band in 2018.

Delivering her set in a mix of Welsh and Cornish, Gwenno commands the stage in a haze of drama. Every inch the perfect performer, she commands the attention of every single eye in the room with her futuristic swagger. Witty and intense, Gwenno’s set is an early highlight backed by psychedelic visuals to match her sound and what a sound it is.

Over at the Great Hall at Cardiff University on Thursday night, Drenge are a noisy bunch weaving their way expertly through a 50 minute set with songs like ‘Bloodsports’ and ‘We Can Do What We Want’ reverberating through the packed room. Despite being their first gig in a few months, there’s no sign of rustiness as they provide an ecstatic vibe ready for the first bit of multi-venue madness that perforates through Friday and Saturday.

In one of the less likely solo reinventions of the decade, former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes continues his extended victory lap touring ‘World’s Strongest Man’, with a full band and backing singers in tow. A beaming Coombes is a master of his craft, songs pulsing along on processed back beats before emerging into euphoric choruses. ‘Detroit’ remains his crowning achievement, the easy groove of the verses exploding into a gospel backed refrain. Top marks for synchronised tambourine dancing from the backing singers.

There are few things quite like a hometown show. Boy Azooga are well aware of this; they play enough of them. The charm has yet to wear off for Davey Newington and his motley crew of multi-instrumentalists, bounding onstage to blast through their ramshackle brand of riffing rock.
Newington’s smile never leaves his face, gushing about the honour of playing alongside Gaz Coombes. “I used to listen to [Supergrass’] ‘In It For the Money’ all the time in the car with my parents”, he admits at one point.
‘Jerry’ shows Azooga can write a sickly sweet tune just as well as they can riff out and hints at where they can go next. By the end of an hour, Cardiff’s Tramshed is bouncing, a boozy Saturday night hitting its stride.
A customary, and touching, cover of local 70s band The Table rolls into the now-classic ‘Splott Five-0’, which gets a raucous reception with the venue a few minutes walk from the Cardiff suburb. A final rollicking tumble through T-Rex’s ‘Love to Boogie’ is unexpected yet apt, with Azooga nodding to Bolan’s rockers in many of their songs. What might have seemed like a big jump to festival headliners is taken easily in stride by a band with a lot of distance left to run.

Following a mad dash from Tramshed, there’s just enough time to catch Suuns upstairs at Clwb Ifor Bach, but it’s a let down as, despite the very packed room, their heavy bass trance output falls flat and sees many heading for the exits, presumably to escape from the racket inside. Goat Girl appear on stage shortly after Suun’s departure and muddy their way through technical issues; it seems the band would rather be almost anywhere elsewhere.

Moving onto Saturday, and the final day of the festival, eyes are tired, feet are aching, and everyone feels a bit worse for wear. Yet, at 5pm on the dot Pizzagirl steps onto the stage downstairs at Clwb Ifor Bach and gets those in the small crowd dancing. Playing 80s infused synth pop, Chvrches-esque almost, he brings a certain charm to the stage. With his self-depreciating wit, referring to himself as “Jim Shady” in reference to his freshly dyed blonde head (apparently his mum hates it), Pizzagirl runs through a tight set that marks itself as one of the best of the weekend.
Revealing before playing ‘Sea Birds’ that he’d spent some time down in Cardiff Bay during the day pretending to be David Tennant in Doctor Who there’s a nostalgic melancholy to Pizzagirl’s songs, particularly ‘Favourite Song’ which its catchy chorus. Finishing with ‘Night Call’, inspired by Ryan Gosling and Drive apparently, he is triumphant in his Saturday afternoon set even if, as he points out, he’s got a four-hour train ride home afterwards.

Heading over to Kongs after, Greta Isaac arrives on stage advising the crowd “I’m going to bum you out with some very intense songs”, but it’s not the case. Backed by two of her sisters, Isaac sounds fresh and vibrant with songs like ‘What We Know’ and ‘Something Good’ coming to life with such a chilled out vibe you almost forget where you are. Isaac’s set was fantastic and provided the perfect palate cleanser before what comes next.

There is a very good case to be argued for Dream Wife being one of the most important bands of 2018, and their Swn set showcases exactly why. From the opening roar of ‘Hey Heartbreaker’ through to the dying notes of ‘Let’s Make Out’, Dream Wife are a force to be reckoned with in the tiny room in Kongs. Singer Rakel Mjöll reveals they love playing Cardiff particularly as their drummer’s partner lives there and it is to her that she dedicates ‘Love Without Reason’ to. Before playing ‘Somebody’, Mjöll demands that all the “bad bitches” in the room come to the front and delivers a big fuck you to gender norms declaring that anybody can be a bad bitch regardless of gender. As ‘F.U.U’ peaks, there’s an emotional power in the air that simply could not be replicated anywhere else across the weekend. No wonder the room is screaming in unison “Dream Wife for lIfe”.

Over at Club Ifor Bach, Wasuremono are delivering an expertly crafted set of dream pop tinged with Talking Heads-esque melodies and receive a warm reception despite declaring they’re from “across the bridge”. The four-piece battle through a wall of technical issues and feedback to deliver a quality set that delighted many in attendance. Heading up the stairs in Tiny Rebel, there’s a post-rock racket coming from Woose who deliver their entrancing set with chaotic flair. Packed into a tiny corner, the group make fair more noise than their space allows with their slick riffs and commanding bass lines.

Heading up to O’Neills, Queen Zee takes the stage with a set so ridiculous it can only be summed up with their punk rock cover of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’ being set to an impromptu strictly come dancing contest in the crowd. Delivering a set of high energy punk, it’s clear to see why the gathered hordes have congregated for this royal performance.

Wrapping up Swn 2018 over at the allegedly haunted Old Market Tavern are Cardiff formed Estrons, opening with ‘Lilac’ with the group on top form. Frontwoman Tali Källström waxes lyrical between songs about how much the band love their hometown with songs like ‘Make A Man’ and ‘Cameras’ sounding extra potent on the band’s home turf. Promising to “set fire to the end of their set”, the group certainly made the room just a bit hotter with their massive riffs.

Swn 2018 has its ups and downs, but the Cardiff festival appears to have found exactly what it is that it does well. With alumni such as The Vaccines and Wolf Alice, there are no doubts that some of the acts that played over the four days will go on to be just as vital and important as those who came before.

Words: Dillon Eastoe, Josh Williams

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